Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

“. . . the madman Booth”

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on April 15, 2011

April 15 is the anniversary of the death of Abraham Lincoln. There may be no other event in American history that’s inspired more what-ifs than the question, “what if Lincoln had served a full second term?”

Earlier today I read a post elsewhere that made a passing reference to “the madman Booth.” This, I think, lets him off too easy, as though he were a mere lunatic no one could have stopped, no on could have prevented, and no one could have predicted.

This is wrong.

Booth was not a madman, a random nutter, acting at the behest of voices in his head. His motivations and self-justifications were firmly grounded in the tumultuous events of the time, rather than a fantasy that existed only in his own mind. While the actor was undoubtedly unhinged and irrational on some levels, he didn’t meet the criminal justice system’s definition of insane, then or now. He plotted in considerable detail. He successfully organized a crew — misfits and hangers-on though they were — and held them together for an extended period. He pulled together complex plans for kidnapping and then murder that, while impractical in retrospect, were nonetheless specific and detailed. He convinced two other men to attempt murder as well, though one lost his nerve at the last moment. He had an extended network of sympathizers and supporters who, if not actively involved in the assassination plot, certainly knew of his grumbling and scheming and did nothing to impede him. One wonders, when they first heard that Lincoln had been shot, how many people immediately thought of John Wilkes Booth?

Above all, he genuinely believed that his actions were directly supporting the Confederate war effort, or (after Appomattox) exacting its revenge, and expected his name to go down in history as a great Southern hero. Sadly for our country, South and North alike, some people still see him that way.

What are your thoughts on Booth, his conspirators, and the Lincoln assassination?